Melissa Levy has made PAWS into Philadelphia's most visible and effective animal shelter.
If you have adopted a dog or a cat in the Philadelphia area over the last few years, you have — directly or indirectly — Melissa Levy to thank for it. And you’re not alone: This past September, Levy’s organization, PAWS, found a home for its 10,000th animal since becoming an independent 501 (c)3 corporation in 2009.
Levy, 40, is the executive director of the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society. You may not know who she is, but you have no doubt lingered in front of the organization’s adoption boutique at the corner of Second and Arch streets in Old City, or stopped to pet one of their dogs in the distinctive orange-and-yellow “Adopt Me” vests at events across the region.
Levy, a lifelong Philadelphian and current South Philly resident, left a career in communications to turn the once-vestigial lifesaving arm of Animal Control into the pre-eminent advocate for the roughly 30,000 dogs and cats that are turned in each year. PAWS, now the city’s largest no-kill shelter, opened a clinic in 2010 in South Philadelphia that has treated more than 17,000 animals since it opened, and will soon add a combination adoption center/clinic in the Northeast. Following are excerpts from an interview with Levy, who has a dog and a cat.
When did you know that you wanted to be involved full-time with animals?
It was in 2006. I had adopted a dog the prior year. I knew things were bad, but I had no idea that there was no real effort to get the animals adopted out. I went to Animal Control and said, I want to help. When I started turning away work because I was so busy volunteering, I realized that I had stumbled into the thing that I was supposed to be doing.
What did being hired full-time allow you to do differently?
Very quickly, we were able to increase the save rate at the Animal Control shelter from 11 percent to 50-60 percent. Around 26,000 were being killed when I started there; now it’s down to about 12,000 a year.
Did you want to work with animals when you were young?
Nope! I loved animals, and I had pets growing up, but I thought I would be a writer, a journalist. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, starting little ventures. The work I do now brings together all of those things — being able to communicate, get a message out, speak to what matters to people, and being able to organize. To develop and lead a healthy organization is every bit as important as loving animals.
What role did your upbringing have in bringing you to PAWS?
As I was growing up, there was a strong message to feel connected and responsible to my community. My identity as a Jew has always been important to me, and that responsibility to each other and community has always been an underlying theme in our family and in my life.
What coping mechanisms do you have for dealing with life-and-death situations on a daily basis?
For me, the trick has been to focus on every individual life, but also to keep an eye on the big picture. Every success we have, every life we save is a victory and is fuel to keep us moving on to the next challenge. We can’t become focused on every individual story, because an individual case can be so emotional and suck so much out of you — it can break you. As painful as those moments are when we can’t save an animal, there are thousands of others depending on us to keep going and keep our eyes on the prize.
Greg Salisbury’s son would like him to adopt another dog and cat. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.